Artemis moon decisions hinge on unfilled NASA position

Permanent associate administrator's job has been vacant since July

With an already aggressive schedule lying ahead, key decisions in the Trump administration’s plan to land humans on the moon by 2024 are awaiting a senior position to be filled, a NASA official told a congressional panel today.

In a hearing billed as an update on NASA’s space exploration systems, lawmakers of both parties pressed Ken Bowersox, acting associate administrator for human exploration and operations, about the schedule for the proposed Artemis lunar landing program. Decisions including when to conduct the first flight of the Space Launch System rocket won’t be made until NASA fills the human exploration and operations position on a permanent basis, said Bowersox.

“I think they’ve got a goal to be done with that process by the end of the year,” Bowersox told lawmakers.

Bowersox has been the interim head of NASA’s Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate, or HEO, since July when the agency reassigned Bill Gerstenmaier and one of his deputies “in an effort to meet” the 2024 deadline, NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said at the time in a memo to employees.

Without a permanent replacement two months later, Democratic lawmakers on the House Science space subcommittee suggested that the staffing changes may be negatively affecting the schedule for Artemis, for which the first major milestone would be the Artemis-1 uncrewed flight of SLS and the Orion crew capsule.

“Working on tight timelines is impacted by the lack of an individual who can make those critical decisions,” said Rep. Kendra Horn, D-Okla., chair of the subcommittee.

Why must NASA wait to schedule Artemis-1? “We want to give a new person a chance to take a look at” current schedule estimates, Bowersox said. He put the earliest date for Artemis-1 at the end of 2020, but a June report from the Government Accountability Office said a 2021 launch is more likely.

“There’s some uncertainties in there that before they commit to it, [the associate administrator] should be able to exercise their judgment,” Bowersox added.

Aside from personnel, he said the most immediate need for Artemis is funding. Congress has yet to approve any of the $1.6 billion the White House has requested for Artemis for fiscal 2020, without which NASA can’t start work on a lunar lander. Current plans call for a commercially designed and built lander that NASA will buy as a service. The agency plans to award contracts for three landers to be built, betting that at least two will be ready for the 2024 landing.

Bowersox said the agency could wait until “roughly the end of the year” to award lander contracts before the 2024 deadline is in jeopardy.

“We’re going to do our best to make” the deadline, he said, “but what’s important is we launch when we’re ready.”

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Artemis moon decisions hinge on unfilled NASA position